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The 5 O’Clock Club: Washington’s two NFL championships that nobody talks about

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Super Bowl XXIII - Washington Redskins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

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The Washington Redskins were something of a powerhouse in the early days of the NFL. In the 10 years from 1936 to 1945, the Redskins played in 6 NFL championship games — 4 of them against the Chicago Bears — winning 2 league championships (in ‘37 and ‘42).

The ‘36 Boston Redskins

In 1936, the then-Boston Redskins lost the championship game 21-6 to the Green Bay Packers.

The ‘37 Champion Washington Redskins

A year later, in 1937, the team was playing in a new city — Washington DC — and the move seems to have been a good one. Playing the Bears at Wrigley Field, the visiting Redskins won the game 28-21 and secured their first-ever NFL championship. The recap:

The Redskins selected quarterback Sammy Baugh from TCU in the first round of the 1937 NFL draft, and the rookie led the league in passing with a then-record 81 pass completions, and Redskins halfback Cliff Battles led the NFL in rushing with 874 yards.

Baugh stated that the field conditions [for the championship game] were, in his words “the worst field I ever saw. The field had been torn up the previous week, and it froze solid with jagged clods sticking up. I’ve never seen so many people get cut up in a football game.”

Learning from the “Sneakers” game of 1934, both teams were prepared with a supply of basketball shoes in case of slippery field conditions. The temperature at kickoff in Chicago was 24 °F (−4 °C).

Baugh took over in the second half, mixing short and long passes, shredding the Bears defense. (Baugh would finish the game 18-for-33 passing, for 335 yards; he had led the league in 1937 with an average of 102.5 yards passing per game.) Even using five defensive linemen (most teams used six at the time) and a sixth defensive back, the Bears could not stop the Redskins passing attack.

In the fourth quarter, the score was tied 21–21, before Baugh threw a 35-yard touchdown strike to Redskins wingback Ed Justice to take the lead for good, 28–21.

A stunning loss for the 1940 Redskins

After a 2 year hiatus, Washington met the Bears again in 1940, this time at Griffith Stadium in DC, playing for all the marbles. It was the most lopsided game in NFL history, with the Bears winning the game 73-0. The recap:

Washington had defeated Chicago 7–3 in a regular season game three weeks earlier in Washington. After the contest, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall told reporters that the Bears were crybabies and quitters when the going got tough. As the Bears prepared for the rematch, Chicago head coach George Halas fired up his team by showing them newspaper articles containing Marshall’s comments, then said, “Gentlemen, this is what George Preston Marshall thinks of you. Well, I think you’re a GREAT football team! Now, go out there and prove it!”

The Bears ended up recording 501 total yards on offense, 382 total rushing yards, and 8 interceptions—returning 3 for touchdowns, all in the third quarter.

So many footballs were kicked into the stands after touchdowns that officials asked Halas to run or pass for the point after touchdown on the last two touchdowns.

This game also marked the last time that an NFL player (Bears end Dick Plasman) played without a helmet.

Reportedly, after the final gun went off, a sports writer jokingly yelled, “Marshall just shot himself!”

Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh was interviewed after the game, and a sportswriter asked him whether the game would have been different had Malone not dropped the tying touchdown pass. Baugh reportedly quipped, “Sure. The final score would have been 73–7.”

A second championship for the ‘42 Redskins

Two years later, in 1942, Washington had a chance for revenge, as the Bears once again traveled to Griffith Stadium, but this time, the home team prevailed, winning their second championship in 6 years by beating Chicago 14-6. The recap:

[The game] matched the undefeated Western Division champion Chicago Bears (11–0) and the Eastern Division champion Washington Redskins (10–1). The Bears were...led on the field by quarterback Sid Luckman. The Redskins were led by head coach Ray Flaherty and quarterback Sammy Baugh.

Chicago had won easily in the summer exhibition game with Washington, but the teams had not met during the 1942 regular season. The Bears were aiming for their third consecutive league title and were favored by three touchdowns, but were upset 14–6 by the home underdog Redskins.

Tickets were sold out three weeks in advance, and some were being resold for up to fifty dollars. The gate receipts from the sellout were over $113,000, a record, and each Redskin player received about $976 while each Bear saw about $639.

Another loss to the Bears in ‘43 and a heartbreaking loss to the Rams in ‘45

The ‘Skins would make two more appearances in the championship game, losing to Chicago 41-21 in 1943, and to the Cleveland Rams 15-14 in Cleveland in 1945. The 1-point loss in ‘45 was a tough one. Here’s the recap:

With former Olympic gold medalist Dudley DeGroot as their new head coach, the Redskins went 8–2 during the 1945 season. One of the most impressive performances came from Baugh, who had a completion percentage of .703.

They ended the season by losing to the Cleveland Rams in the 1945 NFL Championship Game, 15–14. The one-point margin of victory came under scrutiny because of a safety that occurred early in the game. In the first quarter, the Redskins had the ball at their own 5-yard line. Dropping back into the end zone, quarterback Baugh threw to an open receiver, but the ball hit the goal post and bounced back to the ground in the end zone. Under the rules at the time, this was ruled as a safety and thus gave the Rams a 2–0 lead.

[Owner George Preston] Marshall was so upset at the outcome that he became a major force in passing a major rule change after the season, in which a forward pass that struck the goalpost was automatically ruled incomplete. This later became known as the “Baugh/Marshall Rule”.


What’s your attitude towards Washington’s two national championships in 1937 and 1942?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    It’s part of the long tradition of the team that I take pride in
    (518 votes)
  • 9%
    Nothing before the first super bowl really counts
    (61 votes)
  • 2%
    I’m not really interested in any football that was played before I was born
    (18 votes)
  • 7%
    (46 votes)
643 votes total Vote Now